Like all members of Congress, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz must stand for re-election in November. Unusually, for a six-term incumbent, she’s facing a challenger in the Democratic primary.
But that’s not the election fight Wasserman Schultz is most engaged in now. Instead, she’s become a target in the intensifying battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic party’s presidential nominee. Sanders supporters across the country accuse the South Florida lawmaker of using her powerful post as chair of the Democratic National Committee to tip the scales toward Clinton.
It’s a dispute for which there is no definitive evidence. Even some of Sanders’ most fervent partisans don’t believe it. Wasserman Schultz herself denies it.
“If I wanted to favor a candidate, I would not be DNC chair,” she told McClatchy last week after headlining a fundraiser in Tallahassee, Florida. “I would support that candidate. It’s a pretty convoluted way to help a candidate when I have to actually function neutrally as the DNC chair.”
Yet there are many who point to signs suggesting that Wasserman Schultz favors Clinton, starting with the fact that she served as co-chair of Clinton’s 2008 White House campaign, which she lost to then-Sen. Barack Obama. During that run, Wasserman Schultz helped raise $230 million for Clinton.
Now, some Sanders activists say, Wasserman Schultz has done everything she can to limit voters’ exposure to Sanders by capping the number of debates between the Democratic candidates at six during the primary season. That’s only a quarter of the 25 that were held in 2008.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that she’s a Hillary surrogate,” said Patrick Tonissen, a Sanders fan and mortgage banker in Sarasota, Florida. “But I would absolutely say that they are allies. As a Democrat who does not support Hillary Clinton, I don’t believe that the congresswoman has the absolute best interests of the Democratic Party at heart.”
The controversy flared anew this past week when MSNBC and the Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire’s most influential newspaper, scheduled an unsanctioned Democratic debate for Feb. 4, five days before that state’s key primary. Wasserman Schultz has prohibited such unofficial debates and has threatened to bar anyone who takes part from the remaining Democratic exchanges.
But the dispute has muddied the waters about Wasserman Schultz’s role. Clinton, with polls showing a tight race in Iowa and a likely loss in New Hampshire, has said she favors the additional debate and is pushing Sanders to agree to appear. But Wasserman Schultz has said she won’t change the DNC’s plan for just six debates, even if Clinton, Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the third candidate, agree. It’s the first time in the campaign that Clinton and Wasserman Schultz have publicly disagreed.
Obama chose Wasserman Schultz in April 2011 to head the DNC because of her fundraising prowess, her ability to stay on message in interviews, and her influence in Florida, a crucial swing state that decided the 2000 White House race and proved crucial to Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012.
She’s won admirers during her tenure. “I wish I had half the energy she does,” said Scott Brennan, a Des Moines lawyer and former Iowa Democratic Party chairman. “She is tireless. Whenever we’ve needed something, she’s been helpful with resources whether it was money or bodies for events. I’ve had a very good working relationship with her. The party is in a pretty good financial situation, and that’s due in no small part to her hard work.”
As a member of the national committee, Brennan is a so-called superdelegate to the party’s July presidential convention. After the three Democratic White House candidates courted his vote for months, he tweeted Wednesday evening that he was endorsing Clinton.
With the crucial Iowa presidential caucuses scheduled for Monday, Brennan has been following the contretemps over Wasserman Schultz closely. He says he sees no favoritism.
“I’ve seen no evidence here in Iowa that Debbie Wasserman Schultz or the DNC is biased,” Brennan said.
Wasserman Schultz also has support among some Sanders’ loyalists. Ricky Nettina, who lives in Hollywood, Florida, where he helps run a family-owned printer and small book publisher and heads a group called Florida Young Democrats, counts himself as a Sanders activist.
But as a resident of Wasserman Schultz’s 23rd District, which stretches from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and west to Weston where Interstate 75 meets U.S. 27, he believes she’s done a fabulous job in Congress.
“As a congresswoman, she’s actually pretty fantastic,” Nettina said. “She’s all over the district. I don’t agree with everything she does in Washington, but I’m also really happy with her legislative work.”
Nettina admired how Wasserman Schultz resisted significant pressure from many of her Jewish constituents, and from the powerful American Israel Political Action Committee, to defend Obama’s nuclear arms deal with Iran last year. “It showed courage,” Nettina said.
Those who say she’s tipping the scales in Clinton’s favor simply don’t know her, Nettina said. “It’s fairly easy to sit in front of a computer and blog about something or post it to Facebook,” he said. “What would be more effective is for all those people to knock on doors and canvass for Bernie Sanders.”
Another Sanders enthusiast who lives in Wasserman Schultz’s district is less of a fan. Tim Canova, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, has launched a congressional primary challenge against the congresswoman, a rare venture against a veteran House member, especially one who is a top party official.
Canova isn’t running because he thinks Wasserman Schultz is in the tank for Clinton. He believes that she sides too often with the big companies that donate so much money to the DNC.
“She gets a lot of corporate money and votes for a lot of corporate interests,” Canova said.
But it’s legions of Sanders forces from around the country who are most upset with Wasserman Schultz. In blogs, online comments and other digital outposts, hundreds of them paint a broad conspiracy of Wasserman Schultz’s alleged bias against their man.
The Sanders loyalists believe that the senator from Vermont is a better debater than Clinton, and that his recent rise suggests that the more voters see and hear him, the more they like him. Their belief is fortified by frequent media characterizations of Clinton as a stiff and scripted campaigner.
Iowa’s Brennan, however, said the number of debates this primary season was the result of a simple consensus among Democratic leaders after the contentious 2008 fight: There were too many debates then. A similar number this time would only play into Republican hands, he said.
“Nobody’s perfect,” he said, “so at some point you’re going to make a mistake in a debate. That just becomes an issue for your opponent in the general election to attack you on.”
The low number of debates is not the only act that Sanders’ supporters see as suspicious. Alan Pugh, an Ohio computer technician whose blog, Rage and Love, has become an online clearinghouse for Sanders partisans to voice their suspicions of Wasserman Schultz, also cites their scheduling on weekends, sometimes up against big college football or NFL playoff games.
He also weaves a complicated tale about the Clinton and Sanders campaigns’ use, and alleged misuse, of a proprietary database containing valuable information about potential voters for each side.
The two campaigns agree that the initial problems, when internal firewalls failed in October and December, were caused by an outside firm that operates the databases. But Pugh and other Sanders activists were outraged when the DNC cut off the Sanders campaign’s access to the database with no warning last month after a Sanders aide viewed some of the Clinton campaign’s voter data.
Sanders quickly fired the aide and apologized to Clinton for what he described as a one time, unauthorized transgression. But he also criticized the DNC for abruptly blocking his campaign’s access to the voter data and putting out a news release without conferring with him or his top aides.
His supporters blame Wasserman Schultz, and Sanders himself has been barely civil with the DNC chairwoman, brushing past her quickly at the most recent debate.
Sanders says he has moved on, but his supporters have not. In his blog, Pugh promised to keep up the pressure on Wasserman Schultz. “We will shout your transgressions from every rooftop,” he pledged. Dozens of commenters posted their amens.
Wasserman Schultz says she’s trying to ignore all the conspiratorial talk as she shuttles among Washington, her home in Weston and her district offices in Pembroke Pines and Aventura, while fitting in trips around the country to raise money for Democratic candidates.
“I have to just block that noise and focus on doing my job,” she said. “I’m from Florida. I have the skin of an alligator.”
Contributing to this report were Mary Ellen Klas of the Miami Herald, from Tallahassee, Florida, and Anita Kumar of the Washington bureau, from Des Moines, Iowa.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose